Small sides do not win the biggest trophies

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Former professional footballer John Cushley argues against an oversimplistic strategy for schools

We are certainly in danger of putting all our eggs in one basket when it comes to sorting out the problems of our beloved national game. Making all youngsters stick to four-a-side, then "sevens' will, along with the work of community coaches, sort out all the problems. Or so we are told.

Are we really sure it is as simple as that? Certainly Joe Lovejoy's interview with Bobby Robson (Sunday Times, November 26) indicated that the European clubs think that it requires something more substantial. One basic that was repeated across the spectrum of major foreign clubs was the concept of youngsters being brought up through the system on a foundation of one-touch and teamwork. Surely we don't think that teams like Paris St Germain, Juventus and Ajax reached the level of teamwork and skill they have by simply insisting on small-sided games and eliminating the element of competition in the early years?

If so, then the clubs in the area where I lived would be set for wonderful times ahead. All I see, night after night and even in the dim glow of the street-lamps, are groups of youngsters playing their never-ending small-sided games, intent on developing their skills. My doubts about this being the simple answer were strengthened when I watched all three of Scotland's games in the recent Four Nation tournament at under-16 level. The other nations were Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, none of which are out of our league in terms of size and resources but are certainly on another planet when it comes to teamwork and basic skills. It is worth remembering, too, that these Scots are part of the generation who have been given the benefit of the Scottish Football Association technical department's expertise. Regular coaching is provided for these youngsters after they have been identified as the "cream of the crop" through the Scottish Schools Football Association's comprehensive selection process. They managed to scrape a win in the last match against Denmark when everything in terms of winning the tournament had been settled. Some things never change.

The most obvious difference between our team and all our opponents was, just as we have witnessed in the senior competitions, the ability to pass the ball confidently, at speed, to each other all over the park, from their own penalty box right up to the opposition's. Our team could produce a good move now and again, we always had individuals showing delightful pieces of skill and we never gave up. I am now sure that, unless the SFA, in conjunction with the SSFA, is prepared to introduce radical changes in the way football is developed at the grass-roots level, we will never even begin to narrow the gap between ourselves and our competitors. That is why I was delighted to see the review of the FA's Football Curriculum Guide in The TESS Health, Sport and PE" Extra of November 24.

Although there is no doubt that an increase in the level of ball skills is a basic need and that individual, as well as small-sided activities can help this, that is not going to be the full answer. We must recognise that the old myth about footballers' brains being all in their feet is a nonsense. If we are going to produce good footballers and good teams, then we are going to have to recognise that this involves an ability to listen, to learn, to be adaptable, to be able to understand what it means to create angles, offer alternatives and time runs into empty spaces even though you know you are not likely to get a pass.

This, as outlined in the aforementioned guide, can be fairly heavy stuff in terms of content and theory but it is basic and is essential if the ethos of teamwork is to be generated as one of the essentials for being a good footballer as well as skill and fitness.

God forbid that there would be no place for the individual genius we see every now and again. The ones who can mesmerise defences and turn games all on their own with moments of magic. Unfortunately there are fewer and fewer of these around and, when you watch how the super-quick continentals can reduce the effectiveness of even the likes of Brian Laudrup, it is very clear that skill and teamwork are the main essentials in building a strategy for the future.

It was interesting to note Bobby Robson's scathing comments about the quality of coaching in the British game but he was also adamant that our young players could not be left in the hands of schoolteachers.

What is the way forward then? I would suggest that we have to make some moves to ensure that the community coaches are given independence from the clubs so that they can concentrate on getting into our schools at the middle stages of primary and taking an active part in spreading awareness of the concept of one touch, how it is part of an overall team game and, therefore, you are still playing even though you might be nowhere near the ball!

Obviously this, initially at least, would need to be done in the classroom, using aids such as blackboards, overhead projectors and video, before being transferred to a practice area and this raises a question about the coaches. Are they able to communicate ideas in this type of situation or did they get their coaching qualification because of what they could do with a ball? This question, and the issue about the coaches being linked only to the national association and not being partially reliant on the clubs for survival, needs to be given top priority if we hope to be taken seriously by our rivals.

After all we are regularly reminded that the clubs themselves are the real governors of our football, so why can't they put real investment into this much vaunted coaching scheme to ensure that there are enough of the right quality of coaches to impart the necessary knowledge to our young players?

The other area which I think needs to be given serious consideration is the way we allow youngsters to be sucked into the trawl nets of our senior clubs at increasingly younger and younger ages. I know of premier clubs who are now scouring our primary schools for talent. They dress it up as "coaching" and it possibly occurs through a local boys club and not the school, but you can be sure that in any successful primary team, as well as the district select, the stars are already identified and being promised all sorts of wonderful happenings if they will say 'yes' when the scout asks for a pledge of loyalty to his club. We know of cases where the loyalty has been pledged and the required form ended up in a drawer but, after someone better came along, was conveniently forgotten by the other side as another young life is in tatters. Surely it is time for us to look again at the whole business of how and when our senior clubs can become involved in the registration of schoolchildren.

It is now hopefully accepted that teamwork demands a fair level of basic intelligence and to be part of a successful team you need to be able to listen and take in new ideas. How often do we see youngsters who, having made some sort of connection with a senior club, feel that "that is it"?

They have made it and the last thing they need to worry about is "learning". It might just be the Scottish in us but it does seem fairly prevalent an attitude with our kids. The first thing to suffer is their schoolwork and the good habits which made them potential in the first place are no longer required.

As if that was not bad enough, we are also liable to see those who are not "stars" by the time they are in S1, switching off. They will still play and be in the team but they know that if they have not been "discovered" by this time then their dreams are over.

Is it not time that we banned any registration of players with senior clubs until the player has reached school-leaving age? This would allow the excellent ideas of Tony Higgins and the Scottish Professional Footballers' Association for continuing education for all our footballers to have a sound foundation and continuity through all stages of their personal, educational and football development process. It might also provide us with "team" players who would eventually bring our game up to a level where we can compete in club and international competitions with some chance of doing ourselves justice.

John Cushley, assistant head of St Ambrose High, Coatbridge, played for Celtic, West Ham, Dunfermline and Dumbarton.

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